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U.S. military legacy rubs off on Iraqi youth

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BAGHDAD — After more than eight years in Iraq, the departing American military's legacy includes a fledgling democracy, bitter memories of war and, for the nation's youth, rap music, tattoos and slang.

In other words, as the Dec. 31 deadline for completing their withdrawal approaches, U.S. troops are leaving behind the good, the bad and what "Lil Czar" Mohammed calls the "punky."

Sporting baggy soldiers' camouflage pants, high-top sneakers and a back-turned "N.Y." baseball cap, the chubby 22-year-old was showing off his break-dancing moves on a sunny afternoon in a Baghdad park. A "$" was shaved into his closely cropped hair.

"While others might stop being rappers after the Americans leave, I will go on [rapping] till I reach N.Y.," said Mr. Mohammed, who teaches part-time at a primary school.

His forearm bears a tattoo of dice above the words "GANG STAR." That was the tattooist's mistake, he said; it was supposed to say "gangsta."

Eight million Iraqis — a quarter of the population — have been born since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and nearly half the country is younger than 19, according to Brett McGurk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and, until recently, senior adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

So, after years of watching U.S. soldiers on patrol, it's inevitable that hip-hop styles, tough-guy mannerisms and slangy English patter would catch on with young Iraqis.

Calling themselves "punky," or "hustlers," many are donning hoodie sweat shirts, listening to 50 Cent or Eminem and watching "Twilight" vampire movies. They eat hamburgers and pizza and do death-defying Rollerblade runs through speeding traffic. Teens spike their hair or shave it Marine-style. The "Iraq Rap" page on Facebook has 1,480 fans.

To many of their fellow Iraqis, the habits appear weird, if not downright offensive. But to the youths, it is a vital part of their pursuit of the American dream as they imagine it to be.

Mr. Mohammed, a Shiite Muslim, said he was introduced to American culture by a Christian friend, Laith, who subsequently had to flee the anti-Christian violence that broke out in Baghdad. He said he is trying to record a rap song in Arabic and English.

"It is about our situation. About no jobs for us," he said.

"I love the American soldiers," said Mohammed Adnan, 15, who pastes imitation tattoos on his arm. He lives in Sadr City, the Baghdad base of followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has threatened violence against U.S. troops if they stay beyond 2011.

But, surprisingly, Mohammed said the U.S. gangsta look is accepted in his neighborhood.

"All young men in Sadr City wear the same clothes when we hang around," he said. "Nobody minds. And we're invited to weddings or celebrations where we perform break-dancing."

It all adds up to a taste of the wide world for a society that lived for decades under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, which deprived them of satellite TV, cell phones and the Internet, and then through invasion, terrorism and sectarian killing.

Not all Iraqis welcome the culture the Americans brought. Dr. Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University, said one result is that young Iraqis now reject school uniforms, engage in forbidden love affairs and otherwise rebel against their elders.

"There was no strategy to contain this sudden openness," she said. "Teenagers, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt the negative aspects of the American society because they think that by imitating the Americans, they obtain a higher status in society.

"These young Iraqi people need to be instructed," she said. "They need to know about the positive aspects of the American society to imitate."

Like many Iraqis, high school student Maytham Karim wants to learn English. But the English he hears most often from his peers — and mostly those who listen to American music — is laden with profanity.

"The F- and the 'mother' words are used a lot, which is a very negative thing," Maytham said.

As U.S. forces began closing their bases, Iraqis rummaged through their garbage for discarded uniforms, caps and boots to sell to youngsters who pay top dollar to dress like soldiers.

Baghdad's tattoo business also is booming. Hassan Hakim's tattoo parlor in the affluent Karradah neighborhood is covered with glossy pictures of half-naked men and women showing off their ink, regardless of Islam's strictures on baring the skin.

"Iraqi youth are eager in a very unusual way to get tattoo on their bodies, probably because of the American presence here," said Mr. Hakim, 32, who is attending graduate school at Baghdad's Fine Arts Academy. "Four years ago, people were concealing their tattoos when in public, but now they use their designs to show off. It is the vogue now."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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